Here’s a strength training “principle” that gets prominent every few years. Right now there’s an infomercial touting the effectiveness of “confusing” your muscles in order to get better results, so I get a lot of questions about it.
The idea is you do different exercises for a given muscle and because of the variation your muscles get confused and are forced to adapt in some way that does not happen if you do the same exercise all the time. Uh-huh.
Let’s take a look at this. Every muscle in the body can do only two things; contract or relax. That’s what muscles do. When you bend your elbow it’s because your biceps contracts. To straighten your elbow your biceps relaxes and your triceps contracts to pull it in the opposite direction. Easy to understand.
If you bend your elbow with a twenty-pound dumbbell in your hand a few biceps muscle fibers contract. If you do it with fifty pounds, more biceps fibers contract. To get the absolute most biceps muscle fibers to contract you would have to lift the absolute most you could doing that movement. Also easy to understand.
Knowing that, does anybody really believe that somehow your biceps know that two weeks ago they were lifting a dumbbell, but last week they were lifting a barbell and this week they are lifting the handles of a biceps machine? And that knowledge inside the biceps causes them “confusion” and that confusion leads to bigger, stronger muscles than what the amount of weight itself would dictate? In other words, a 90-pound barbell curl would have an effect more than 90 pounds because of the confused condition of the muscle? Maybe it’s “like” 115 pounds just because of the added confusion. Does that sound plausible in this universe?
Moreover, your biceps is used to open doors, carry a laptop bag, lift groceries and hundreds of other things – and it’s expected to remember last week’s gym exercise but be confused that it’s not the same this week’s? Does that sound like how the rest of the human body works? Does your digestive system get confused because last Thursday’s dinner was spaghetti but this Thursday’s is sea bass?
This muscle confusion crap has a cousin. It’s the story about how you do a workout on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then your body “expects” a workout on Sunday. But you don’t do a workout on Sunday and when you go back to the gym Monday your body is “shocked” by the surprise workout and therefore you get better muscle gains. Have you heard that one? The amazing thing about it is your body never figures out the pattern so every Monday is a total shock to the muscles. Please.
As I mentioned in the Welcome to My World audio recording, in fitness marketing lies sell better than truth. So infomercials are chocked full of lies that pander to people who trust blindly and don’t think things through. It’s a shame, but right this minute an infomercial and a certified personal trainer somewhere are both telling someone that muscle confusion will improve their results.
The truth is so much simpler. Lift the heaviest weight you possibly can for each muscle group, rest long enough to fully recover and build new muscle tissue, return to the gym and lift a slightly a heavier weight. Wash, rinse and repeat.